Cancer will almost always be a life-changing diagnosis. As an adult, you may know how it can impact a person’s life. Children may not understand as much, but they can tell when something is wrong. Talking about cancer with a child or toddler isn’t easy, but it’s an important part of coping together as a family.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- How to Explain Cancer to a Child or Toddler
- How to Tell Your Child or Toddler You or a Grandparent Have Cancer
- How to Explain Cancer Treatment to a Child
While you may worry about scaring or upsetting your child, keeping cancer a secret could be more upsetting. Young children tend to blame themselves when things around them go wrong. Without hearing facts from an adult, children sometimes create scenarios in their minds that are worse than reality.
Use this guide to stay calm, steady, and prepared when discussing cancer with your child. Reassure them during the hard times and keep them informed. Your most important job is to help them understand cancer so they can cope with it no matter the outcome.
How to Explain Cancer to a Child or Toddler
If you’re fumbling for the right words to explain cancer to your child, remember that you're not alone. Cancer is a complex and possibly life-threatening illness. It can be hard to start the conversation, especially as the parent of a young child. Take the following tips to help you get off on the right foot.
1. Practice what you want to say first
Take the time to prepare what you'll say. The more calm and steady you are, the more reassuring your words will be. It's OK to be emotional when you talk, and you may not be able to help it. Having your words prepared will make it easier to get through them when the time comes.
Write down a few key sentences you'll need to say, but don't stop there. It's one thing to write or type them out and see them. It's quite a different experience to speak them out loud and feel your emotions rise. Be ready for this by saying the most difficult things aloud a few times to yourself. When the conversation happens in real-time, your body and memory can help you push through the most emotional moments.
2. Be truthful
The truth about cancer can be scary, but don't skirt around it. Resist the temptation to soften the news by making it sound less serious or glossing over important details. It's too easy for your child to find out what cancer is from friends, other family members, or the internet. If this backfires, your child may feel misled and lose trust in you.
Start on the right foot by being honest, no matter how bad the situation is. You'll help your child feel more secure and trusting by being upfront. Instead of shielding them from uncomfortable news, explain to them and show them that you will go through it together.
3. Keep the conversation open
Your conversation about cancer with your child isn’t over after you break the news. Consider it the first step in an ongoing discussion. Keep your child updated about your loved one and what they are going through.
When you go long stretches without talking about your loved one, your child may misinterpret what's happening. They may wonder if you're hiding something or if your loved one has secretly died. Help to keep these concerns at bay by speaking openly about your loved one and their situation.
Make sure you also talk about your loved one in other ways. Discuss their favorite sports team, their hobbies, what they do for work, or their favorite foods. Shifting the focus once in a while can give your child some easier topics to talk about. Don't worry if your child doesn't always feel like talking about cancer. Just make sure they understand you're ready to listen when they need you to.
4. Encourage questions
Your child’s reaction to a loved one having cancer will depend on their personality and your family situation. Some kids are full of questions and curiosity, and they don’t feel shy about asking. Others are reluctant to speak up because they don’t know what to ask, are afraid of the answer, or may feel self-conscious about talking.
If your child seems hesitant to ask questions, start by asking them one first. Find out what they feel most comfortable talking about and start with that. They may eventually open up about other topics once they get started.
- Start with open questions like, “How do you feel about Mom’s cancer?”
- If your child doesn’t say much, move to yes/no questions such as, “Do you feel worried about Mom’s cancer?” or “Does Mom’s cancer make you feel sad?”
- Observe your child’s art and play, and look for opportunities to bring up your loved one and their situation. Also, read aloud with your child, and use moments in your stories to mention your loved one.
5. You don't have to have all of the answers
If you're worried about not having the right answers for your child, it's OK. You don't have to understand everything ahead of time. You aren't likely to anyway since a cancer diagnosis is only one part of the story. Tell your child that you are all learning about this together.
Explain that you can speak with doctors, nurses, and other helpful people when you have questions or don't understand something. You can share other resources with your child like websites, pamphlets, or printed pamphlets with facts and information.
6. Consider their age
A child’s age makes a difference in how easily they understand cancer. Consider your child’s vocabulary level and ability to understand the bigger picture. The age guidelines can help, but you know your child’s development and maturity best.
Use words they understand
Conversations will be easier when you start using basic cancer terms. Adapt these phrases to your child's age and use them often. With practice, your child will develop their own understanding of these words.
Consider their developmental level
A child's understanding of the world changes as their mind develops. Use the following descriptions of child development to help you talk with your child. These guidelines apply whether the diagnosis is for your child or a family member.
- Ages 0-3: Don’t understand cancer and need reassurance for their fears.
- Ages 3-7: Understand simple cancer terms, may think they caused the cancer, and need reassurance nobody will abandon them.
- Ages 7-12: Can understand more detailed information, understand the causes of cancer and the need for treatment, and may hear about cancer from outside sources.
- Teenagers: Can understand cancer with even greater detail, understand how it affects daily life, and may want more involvement in treatment and decisions.
7. Assure your child they can’t catch cancer from someone
Younger children may not understand how cancer develops and may believe it is like a common childhood illness. They know a person can catch a cold by being close to someone who is sick. By age 4 or 5, they have a basic understanding that sneezing, coughing, and sharing objects with a sick person can make them sick, too.
These young kids may mistakenly assume that they can catch or spread cancer to someone in the same way. Explain how cancer works using simple terms and assure them that they can’t catch cancer like they can catch a cold. You may need to repeat this message, especially if you don’t see your loved one with cancer often.
8. Use children's books about cancer
Even with the tips listed above, you may still struggle to find the right when talking with your child.
Children’s books about cancer can make it easier. Illustrations and thoughtful stories teach children about how cancer works and addresses their fears.
9. It’s OK to show emotion
You may feel like it’s better to look strong for your child instead of breaking down in tears. Parents often want to protect their children and avoid upsetting them. But children and adults both feel emotional pain when someone they love has a serious illness. These feelings are normal, so it’s healthy to show and share them.
Children may be anxious and confused about their feelings. They may feel ashamed to be sad or lonely, especially if others around them aren’t showing much emotion. When you talk about your feelings or cry in front of your child, you make it normal for them to do it as well.
You can’t take away their pain, but you can make it easier to cope with. Talk about your feelings and encourage your child to do the same. Continue to read children’s books about cancer with them, especially ones that focus on emotions. And in general, help them understand you are there to help them feel safe when they have emotions that feel too big.
How to Tell Your Child or Toddler You or a Grandparent Have Cancer
Cancer isn’t as simple as a cold or allergies. Explaining it may go against the way your child thinks about illness, but that doesn’t mean you should keep them in the dark. Use these tips to help your child learn about cancer and how it affects your family.
1. Involve the grandparent in sharing the news, if possible
First, make sure their grandparent is aware you’re sharing the news with your child. Kids may not have much of a filter when they communicate and may blurt something out. If their grandparent wanted to discuss it themselves or keep it private a little longer, this could create an awkward moment.
Instead, see if their grandparent would like to share the news themselves, either in person, over the phone, or on a video chat. Hearing the news from their grandparent may help it sink in better, and gives the grandparent a chance to ask questions or offer comfort directly.
On the other hand, your child’s grandparent may not feel emotionally up to it and want you to go first. They may want to be present but silent as you do the talking. Or they may only want to visit after your child’s had a chance to absorb the news. Your family’s situation will be unique, so just be sure the adults are on the same page before going forward.
2. Have some visuals with you
Kids think differently than adults, and visual information is a great way to explain complex things like cancer. Sometimes it’s hard to understand cancer from words alone, even for adults.
You can point to parts of your body and show a bottle of pills. You may also use picture books or information sheets specially made for kids. Bring some paper and markers so you can explain with drawings. Doing creative art can help you and your child express feelings, too.
3. Assure your child that you’ll be there for them
Your child may have some big feelings from this experience. When they realize someone they love isn’t well, they may feel anxious or afraid of being abandoned.
Their emotional reactions may also seem unconnected to the illness. They may not say much when you talk about going to the doctor, but may struggle when being dropped off at school. Children are still learning how to cope with their feelings as they grow. So reassure them as the treatment and recovery process unfolds.
4. Give your child something they can do or look forward to
Hearing bad news can make a person feel helpless, especially children. Coping can be easier when you have a task or job. Have a few ideas ready before you talk to your child about the diagnosis.
- Encourage them to make a drawing, write a note, or make a craft for whomever has been diagnosed. Anything personal from your child can feel like a priceless gift, especially when things are tough.
- If your family follows a particular faith, suggest praying for the person with cancer.
- Plan for some type of regular communication. It may not always work to visit in person, so try short video chats or phone calls.
- Kids love to help. When it works and is safe, include your child when doing things for the person with cancer. Let them help with errands, meal planning, or organizing.
How to Explain Cancer Treatment to a Child
Cancer treatment can seem confusing to a child. Treatment can be both harmful and helpful, and seeing a loved one go through it can be stressful. Use these suggestions to make the explanation process either for you and your child.
1. Use videos, visual aids, and art supplies
Videos can help children understand the basics of cancer and how it’s treated. Videos made for children use simple language and images to explain some of the more complex aspects.
You can do the same with art supplies you may have at home. You may want to draw a few things ahead of time or do it with your child as you talk. Because there are many ways to treat cancer, you’ll need to have a good understanding of the process yourself first.
And if it has several steps, try to focus on the ones happening right away first. Limit what you share at the beginning so your child doesn’t become overwhelmed.
2. Discuss some of the side effects
Cancer is different from other commonly discussed illnesses. Children understand that when you take medicine, you’re supposed to feel better after a while. But cancer treatment can make a person feel bad while also improving their illness. Kids may wonder why and how this works.
Some of the more common side effects are fatigue, stomach upset, pain, hair loss, and weight loss. This physical transformation can develop quickly and may be alarming, even if the treatment is going according to plan. The person with cancer may look very different from what a child may expect, stirring feelings of fear or uncertainty. Be supportive no matter how they react, and let them know it’s OK.
3. Explain why you may not be able to visit in person sometimes
A person can’t catch cancer from someone else, but both cancer itself and the treatments weaken a person’s immune system, making infections a bigger risk. A child may not understand that both ideas can be true at once. This is important since in-person visitation may be limited during active treatment.
Connection is essential for both the person with cancer and your child. So do the best you can during the treatment period. Take advantage of video chats, phone calls, and maybe visits outdoors at a distance. Explain that this helps keep them safe, and hopefully, they can visit in person again when treatment is complete.
4. Talk about how long treatment may take
Use benchmarks your child can easily recognize like holidays, birthdays, or seasons of the year. For example, explain that treatment will begin when school starts and will keep going until Thanksgiving. This type of explanation can help them understand the passage of time more easily.
Each cancer is unique and can have multiple treatment options and procedures. As you learn more about the process, keep your child’s landmarks in mind. It may help to mark the calendar with stickers or a special symbol as treatment progresses.
Talking About Cancer With Your Child
When you speak honestly about cancer with your child, you show them it’s OK to ask questions and talk about feelings. This can be uncomfortable sometimes, but openness can help your child cope with uncertainty and fear.
Learning about how cancer works, treatments, and even death, can be overwhelming for a child no matter how old they are. But with your reassurance, you and your child can cope with the ups and downs as a family.
If you're looking for more on how to talk to children, read our guides on how to tell a child their grandchild died and how to talk to toddlers about death.
- “Books to Help Children Cope with Cancer.” Roswell Park, September 17, 2018, roswellpark.org
- “Cancer Terms.” Cancer.net, cancer.net
- “How a Child Understands Cancer.” Cancer.net, September, 2019, cancer.net